Since Artyom’s story has come out I’ve been hyper-vigilant about the girls catching wind of it. I haven’t had the news on at all while they’re awake, and I’ve been careful about leaving the blog up where they may see it. I’ve been grateful for the tendency of restaurants to have their TVs tuned to sports channels. I’ve thought that I need to ask my dad not to have the TV on a news channel when we visit. I’ve wanted to keep them completely away from news that an adoptive parent would give away her child. Me, the grand proponent of speaking openly and honestly with my kids about the hard issues in adoption.
But how can I tell them about adoption disruption? About adoptive families that kick out their adoptive kid when biological kids come along? About adoptive families who give it less than 6 months before deciding it’s all too much? About adoptive families where the other children watch Sponge Bob while their adopted brother is “re-homed?” About adoptive families who make promises and don’t keep them?
Reminded in this post from John Raible of the ubiquity of the news about Artyom and the chances of someone else telling my children, and the effect of hearing about it out of the blue, I decided we needed to talk about it.
I started by telling them that I had seen a story about adoption on TV that made me mad and sad. “A lady adopted a 7-year-old boy from Russia, then she decided she did not want to parent him, so she put him on an airplane all by himself and sent him back to Russia.”
Zoe’s immediate and shocked response: “But she promised when she adopted him that she would love him and take care of him forever!”
“I know,” I replied, “that’s why I’m so mad and sad.”
We talked for quite a while about how Artyom must have felt on the airplane – alone, scared, confused, sad -- say the girls. And they think he must still feel that way, plus really mad at his adoptive mom. That's Maya's picture of Artyom as sad and mad (notice his hands are fisted in the "mad" drawing).
The girls wanted to know what was going to happen to Artyom, whether he’d go back to the orphanage or find another family. You can see Zoe’s note to God, hoping Artyom would find the perfect family who would never give him away.
I told the girls that a lot of people were really mad about what the mom did to Artyom. In fact, I said, Russia is so mad it wants to stop all adoptions to the U.S. Even as I said this, Zoe was shaking her head. What about the people who want to adopt from Russia? Interesting that she would think first about prospective adoptive parents, and not about kids not being adopted. She's obviously clued into the fact that adoptive parents are the actors and adopted kids are objects acted upon. (And this might be an area where Zoe and I will have to disagree – I don’t think a suspension of adoptions right now is a bad idea.)
The girls also wanted to know what would happen to the mom. They both think she should go to jail, my punitive little darlings! (I didn’t explain the difficulties of criminal charges in Tennessee, or I’m sure I would have put them right to sleep.)
We talked about how they felt about hearing the story, and true to the theme of the discussion, they both said they were sad and mad – sad for Artyom, and mad at the mom. After all, Zoe said emphatically, “A promise is a promise, especially in adoption.” I asked them if hearing about what happened to Artyom made them feel worried that the same thing would happen to them. They both said no, and I said, “I think it’s pretty normal for adopted kids to worry that they might do something bad and be sent away. Do you ever feel that way?” Again, the answer was no. Maya said, "You promised to love us and take care of us forever, and you don't break promises." Yes!
I wanted to emphasize that there was no way they could ever do anything that would make me give them away, so I said, “Think of the worst ever thing you could do, okay?” Maya says, “Kicking Zoe.” I said, “Maya, that’s a bad thing, and I wouldn’t like it if you did that, but if you kicked Zoe I would still love you and you would still be my daughter and I would still keep you forever.” Zoe then says, “Kill Maya?” Without blinking (that took some doing!), I said, “Zoe, that’s a bad thing, and I wouldn’t like what you did, but if you killed Maya I would still love you and you would still be my daughter and I would still keep you forever.” (And I really mean that, by the way. In fact, I recently said to another adoptive mom when we were talking about disruptions, “I promised forever, and I meant it. If that means holding my child’s hand in the death chamber when she’s executed for murder, then so be it.” I know it's easy to say when you haven't experienced it, but it is something I think about as a criminal law nerd.)
The conversations turned to promises between the girls that they would never kick or kill each other, and then off in a completely different direction.
Zoe said another interesting thing – I can’t remember what prompted it or when in the midst of this conversation she said it. She said, “It’s like he has two birth mothers now.” I couldn’t get her to elaborate on it, but I thought it showed how she has internalized her birth family’s actions as abandonment, even as we talk about the reasons they couldn’t parent her. The definition of "birth mother" doesn't rely on biological relationship in this formula; instead, birth mother = abandonment.
We’ll talk more about the birth mother issue later, because of course there are some differences between a poor, disempowered woman in China (or Russia) and an educated, employed woman in Tennessee who quite deliberately set out to parent. Zoe may know that in her head, but it certainly hasn’t made it to her heart. I also explained that Artyom’s birth mother was sick, that she couldn’t take care of him because she drank too much alcohol. Zoe said, “Why doesn’t she just quit?! Then she could take care of him.” (Hard to explain alcoholism and addiction to a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old – by the end of my explanation, Zoe was worried about drinking the communion wine! I'm thinking I'll definitely need a "do-over" on this one.)
I’m so glad we had this conversation. I got the chance to explain that woman’s actions before my kids heard another version on TV or, worse, from some kid in their class who’d probably suggest that I would put them on a plane back to China. I can’t believe it took me so long to remember the importance of inoculating my kids against wrong-headed views of adoption, of making a pre-emptive strike. How about you? Have you talked to your kids about Artyom, about adoption disruption?